In a few days I’m going to be giving a lecture about Marina Abramovic and ideas around performance documentation and reperformance. I’ve been putting together some notes for it and finally feel like I am in a position to actually talk about the experience I had meeting her. It’s taken a while to get my head around the whole thing.
Almost three months ago I worked on Project 30: Marina Abramovic in Residence organised by Kaldor Public Art Projects. This was probably one of the most important art events to happen in Australia in the last 50 years and, as a giant Marina fangirl, absolutely incredible to be a part of.
If you don’t know Marina, she is a performance artist who has been working for the last 40 years and in that time has created a bunch of hugely innovative works that have shifted definitions of performance. She is often referred to as the ‘grandmother of performance art’ and has been listed as one of ‘the most significant artists of the second half of the 20th century’ by a curator at the Whitney Gallery.
Most people have heard of her because of two works – Rhythm 0 from 1974 and The Artist Is Present from 2010. One has become infamous for bringing out the worst in humanity, the other famous for bringing out the best. In Rhythm 0, Marina stood in a gallery, submitting herself to the will of the audience present. The audience were instructed they could use any of the 72 objects laid out before them on the artist’s body. Amongst the objects were a camera, scissors, a rose, olive oil and a gun. What began as quite innocent actions by the audience soon transformed into something as Marina was stripped, cut and had thorns from the roses pushed into her body. She endured minor sexual assaults. One member of the audience member held the gun to Marina’s head only to be stopped by other audience members.
The Artist Is Present was a massive retrospective of Marina’s work held at MoMA for three months of 2010. For every day of the exhibition Marina sat in the gallery space, asking visitors to sit opposite her and meet her gaze, to interact with her. Thousands of people came and sat opposite her – some cried, some laughed, one man sat opposite her for an entire day. She would not move from her chair. She would not eat. She would just stare and endeavour to remain constantly present, devoting her full attention to the person opposite her. This video of her former partner, in both art and life, Ulay, coming and sitting opposite her went viral and is the only time during the 750 hours she sat there that she broke those rules. Marina and Ulay had previously created a work called Nightsea Crossing in the 80s where they sat in gallery spaces and stared at each other for hours on end.
Though incredibly different in nature, both these works deal with the same ideas – ideas that have been the basis for all Marina’s work – of duration, bodily limits and intimacy. Intimacy, whether it be between lovers of between strangers or between her and an audience, dominates her work and she strives to push the limits of different types of intimacy. In The Artist is Present, Marina forced the audience to connect with her, to meet her gaze and return it, to push themselves out of their comfort zones. Marina has often said that it is only by putting yourself into uncomfortable situations and pushing yourself that you can grow or change.
The notion of duration hasn’t really changed much from her early performances to her more recent works. The duration of her work has also been dictated by what her body can endure. The early works were more fraught with bodily danger, that it isn’t only the duration of the work that is being dealt with but the actual duration of Abramovic’s life. While the more recent works, like The Artist is Present and 512 Hours, still see Abramovic testing how far she can push her body, she is no longer risking her own life for the sake of the performance. It is a different sort of risk she is taking now.
Over the last 40 years her work has dematerialised. It has become less and less about the props and objects used in the early years and increasingly about the relationship between herself and the audience – about creating that connection and transforming the audience into performance makers themselves.
After the success of the The Artists Is Present, Marina pushed this idea of audience participation further last year in 512 Hours at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Like The Artist Is Present, in 512 Hours Marina was in the Serpentine gallery space for the duration of the exhibition. Unlike The Artist Is Present, however, there was no set action for the entire exhibition – it wasn’t just 512 hours of sitting, starring and connecting. Instead visitors were asked to give up their watches, phones and other distractions, put on some noise handling headphones and be in the space with Marina.
For the last while, Marina has been putting together The Abramovic Method, which will be taught at the Marina Abramovic Institute when it is set up. The method consists of a number of meditative activities like slow walking and staring at different colours that she has adopted from various different cultural practices. Marina has never claimed to have invented any of these practices, she’s just teaching them. All the exercises in the Abramovic Method are aimed at making people focus on the present and being in the moment.
Every day at Serpentine, Marina might pick from one of these exercises and ask the audience to do it with her.
This leads us to Project 30: Marina Abramovic in Residence. And what I think will now actually be tomorrow’s blog. This turned into a lot more general things about Marina than I intended.
This Guardian article interview by Emma Brockes is a really fantastic intro to Marina if you want more.